- Beyond Mass Incarceration?
This symposium is a timely, welcome and valuable addition to the developing body of work that strives to draw productive linkages between accounts of the problems of contemporary democratic politics, the vagaries and extravagances of punishment in advanced capitalist countries today and efforts to sketch how these matters might be theorised, approached, and done differently. We therefore want to use these brief reflections on the papers to take stock of the forms of connection that are emerging between democratic theory and mass incarceration and to suggest some paths for future work. Why has this become an important challenge now? Why has it been missing until lately? Which kinds of work need to be so connected, and to what ends?
To say that this collection is timely, or that the work is now developing, is anything but a cause for (self) congratulation. Very often when we say that something is timely – in the present case, for example, exploring the connections between rigorous empirical investigation into the dynamics of mass incarceration and theories of democracy – we really mean that it is way past time; that it should have been initiated long ago; and sometimes that the precious time remaining in which it might make a productive difference is slipping away, or might already have elapsed. This also tends to suggest that something has until lately been inhibiting the making of the necessary connections.
What that something might be exceeds our scope here, and is in any case the subject of Bernard Harcourt’s pointed and important contribution [End Page 114] to this volume, and a key animator for several others. It is undoubtedly a matter of perplexity and one that demands explanation. Some weird concatenation of conditions, of the kinds that Pierre Bourdieu often analysed so insightfully – in the socialization of young academics and the incentives structures of their disciplines perhaps, alongside a certain fatalism with regard to the irresistibility of mass incarceration, combined with the scary state of public discourse that includes eager hit squads quite ready to monster dissidence for fun and profit – produces blocks against insight.1 Just as the elephants are always “in the room” the thing here that is “invisible” is not un-seeable, just not seen. Harcourt’s conclusion is arresting and appealing in its honesty: “It is clear that prisons are invisible, but it is not entirely clear how they can be brought into the light.”
This collection is also timely in another sense, though not one that is much discussed in its pages. Having arrived at a moment when the onward march of mass incarceration has at least taken a pause, the alibi of inevitability loses a great deal of its force. This is in no way to suggest that the era of mass incarceration is over, still less its counterparts in other forms of systematic exclusion and stigmatization of the kinds that Elizabeth Anderson sets out so clearly here. That would be akin to interpreting every winter cold snap as somehow disproving the existence of anthropogenic climate change, as all too many are too ready to do. It is however a moment at which mass incarceration may be more vulnerable to certain forms of strategic intervention,2 and one at which a variety of forms of “innovation” appear to replace or supplement it. These circumstances demand a new wave of political evaluations comparable in ambition to the critiques offered by Stanley Cohen and others in the 1970s and 80s of “net widening” and the dispersal of social control.3 Are the novelties that we are likely to witness merely new gadgets, of the kind that neo-liberalism is adept at creating,4 or re-framings of a more far-reaching nature? The point is that any attempt to even pose the necessary questions properly will demand simultaneous and collaborative efforts both at documentation and empirical inquiry and at delineating their implications on and for the polity more broadly considered.
One difficulty that attends all such projects of course is the low regard for “theory” in the eyes of many – its high status within the academy being more or less symmetrically matched by the...